Faced with its own mortality, NBC will raise the dead.
It has been five years since the American consumer has heard from extreme reality competition Fear Factor, which will be making a triumphant return to prime time television next Monday night. NBC, in the midst of a heated battle with Univision for fourth place in the network wars, is praying that everyone will have forgotten just how bored they had become with Fear Factor by 2006, when the show was cancelled after six seasons.
This iteration of the gross-out, extreme stunt competition promises to be bigger and badder. In fact, NBC executives demanded that it be bigger and badder.
So comedian/MMA aficionado Joe Rogan will return to host. The program will be broadcast in HD for the first time. There will be more explosions, ever-more dizzying heights, and (presumably) fatter cockroaches to eat.
NBC clearly believes that the market that had become so desensitized to Fear Factor’s adrenaline-fueled formula by 2006 is now ready for another round of exposure.
Fear Factor will bomb. Again.
In the summer of 2001, when Fear Factor was first developed for an American audience, there was a television revolution afoot.
CBS’s Survivor: Borneo, along with Big Brother, had begun to change the television landscape the year before by combining game shows and reality programming to create what can only be described as fantastic TV. Fear Factor was NBC’s attempt to capitalize on the reality TV trend.
By expanding the “oh man, that’s nasty!” concept behind Survivor‘s occasional bug eating challenges, NBC managed to create a shocking(ly unremarkable), borderline-degrading weekly competition show.
Yes, Fear Factor was designed to do little more than thrill and occasionally disturb its audience by subjecting contestants to a number of “extreme” contests.
For a while, people enjoyed seeing everyday folks in life jackets and harnesses jump between platforms suspended over lakes, lie down in coffins filled with worms, and jump off of buildings into piles of cardboard boxes.
Then the program aged. While Survivor remained at the top of the ratings well into the mid-2000s, Fear Factor began to sputter. The audience was bored.
It was an error of judgement from the executives at NBC that had doomed Fear Factor to mediocrity from square one. They saw the success of Survivor and Big Brother and said, “we can do that with even more action and even more intense situations.” NBC accomplished that, to be sure, but Fear Factor was ultimately exposed to be nothing but a gimmick because it lacked the human drama of other competition shows. Whereas Survivor derived a great deal of its entertainment value from its characters and their interactions, Fear Factor (which brought in a new set of competitors every week) relied on set pieces and contrived “danger”.
Now, a decade past its original folly, NBC looks again to the Fear Factor brand to resuscitate a network that hasn’t developed a big hit since… Heroes? The Office?
Again, the network dreams of big explosions and high shock value, clinging stubbornly to a failed formula. Again, the show will be trounced in the ratings, this time by the likes of The Amazing Race and Dancing with the Stars, programs that know how to use character to captivate viewers.
Next week’s reboot may draw a few curious eyes away from more competent networks, but it won’t stick now any more than it did five years ago. Audiences are no more receptive to repetitive, joyless “thrills” than they were then.
NBC is behaving as an unhip, middle aged fellow digging around in the back of his closet might. He tries on all his old clothes in an attempt to recapture the glory days, only to find that they’ve gone woefully out of style.